I pen these words from Jerusalem on the eve of Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month of Cheshvan, with great excitement. This is because I hope to pray the morning service of Rosh Chodesh as part of a unique minyan, that of the historic Hurva Synagogue located in the Old City of Jerusalem.
During a previous stay I had the merit to participate in the Rosh Chodesh davening service in that shul and have had a tremendous desire to do so again ever since. What is so unique about that service?
This service is called a “vasikin minyan,” specially timed to commence the Amidah prayer at the moment of sunrise. This the Talmud considers to be a great merit in its own right and something that few merit to do properly, to time the entire service so accurately.
Although there are vasikin minyanim throughout the world, there’s something about partaking of such a minyan in such a holy place, the Old City. Especially in a synagogue with such rich history. It was originally built by Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid, a world-renowned sage, and his followers who came from Europe in 1700. It was known as the principal Ashkenazi shul of Jerusalem.
Since it was built by loans credited by Muslim bankers, when the poor students weren’t able to repay the loans, the Muslims destroyed it in 1721. Hence the name “Hurva,” meaning destroyed.
The shul sat in ruins for over 100 years, with tremendous efforts both politically and financially, it was finally rebuilt, with the help of Sir Moses Montefiore and with connections to Baron Rothschild. It was built by the students of the Vilna Gaon, the renowned Rav Eliyahu of Vilna who had made aliya to Israel and were determined to rebuild the Ashkenazi presence in Jerusalem.
Part of the uniqueness of the service is that it is one of the few shuls in the world which retains the customs of the Vilna Gaon, customs which elevate the holiness and intensity of the service.
The final icing on the cake is that the members of this shul pray with a level of joy and intensity that is rarely if ever seen by an individual, let alone by an entire congregation!
Throughout the year the joy and intensity of this minyan reach their pinnacle at the Rosh Chodesh service. Because of the rulings of the Vilna Gaon, the blessing on the Hallel prayer is recited only by the leader for the entire congregation. They then proceed to sing the entire Hallel, word for word, together in perfect unison. The simcha and the holiness is so palpable as to be an experience not to be forgotten for a lifetime!
These are the types of things which, unfortunately, are not seen by most Jews on most tours to Israel. There’s so much holiness, richness and joy available, we just need to tap into it!
Next year in Jerusalem!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.